Rednecks, White Trash, and Blue Collars, Part 1

They said, “Get back, honky cat,
Better get back to the woods.”
Well, I quit those days and my redneck ways,
And oh, the change is gonna do me good…

— Elton John, Honky Cat, 1972

I have access to some mountainous land around three hours west of Baltimore. It’s located just outside a smallish town in rural West Virginia. I go there to exercise those most red-blooded of American passions — dirt biking, four-wheeling, hunting, and the point-blank vaporization of unneeded household items (obsolete glassware, old TVs, leftover cans of paint) with large-caliber weapons…

On a recent trip to these parts, my dirt bike developed a coolant leak after just a few minutes of riding. Afraid of overheating it, I loaded the machine back into my truck and took it to the motorcycle dealership in town. I didn’t know this at the time (and you’d never know it to look at it), but the shop is one of the largest-volume ATV and off-road motorcycle dealerships in the East. That means they’re really busy. In fact, their service department was stacked up with two weeks’ worth of work.

Yet when I showed up at 3:30 in the afternoon, an hour and a half before closing time, one of their mechanics took the time to look at my bike. He told me to leave it with him and come back a few minutes before 5:00 p.m. I did, fully expecting either to not have had any work done to the bike at all (which would’ve been perfectly fair) or to pay through the nose for a simple repair on short notice, like I would have anywhere in the city…

But when I came back, the bike was fixed and idling contentedly in front of the shop. The mechanic had put this city boy stranger’s bike ahead of dozens of other jobs, many of which no doubt were the machines of his own friends and neighbors. 

As it turned out, fixing the cycle had required some disassembly and effort. Yet when I asked him how much I could pay him for the work, he wouldn’t accept anything at all — not even an off-the-books ten spot for a few beers after work. Keep in mind that I didn’t buy the bike originally from that dealership, nor was I a regular customer for parts or accessories. In fact, I had never spent a single penny in the shop before. I still haven’t…

It was simply a case of one person doing something kind for another, so a total stranger’s day of fun could be salvaged. Indeed, I went back to my property and rode with delight until darkness fell. I mention this experience to set the stage for a few points I want to make about the most maligned people in America today…


Defiant and Misunderstood, Just Like Their Name

There are a lot of theories about the origins of the term “redneck.” (Throughout this article series, I’ll put “redneck” in quotations. That’s because I’m referring to the mainstream’s usage of the word, not my own personal feelings about people commonly referred to with the term.) Many believe the term comes from the leathery sunburn on the back of the neck that comes with outdoor labor — a staple of poor Appalachians in the 18th and 19th centuries… 

However, the etymology that seems most credible to me is one that defines the earliest citation of the word as a description of Scottish Presbyterians who refused to adopt the Church of England as their official governing church. Many of these folks signed documents protesting the Anglican church’s rule using their own blood. To signify their defiant stance, many wore red bandanas around their necks. 

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, throngs of these “rednecks” emigrated from their native Scotland to Northern Ireland, and then to America, or to America directly. Most of them settled in Appalachia, the South, and the Ozarks. This fits precisely with the historical population of these regions (overwhelmingly Scots-Irish, and largely Presbyterian).

Today, however, Wikipedia defines this term loosely as “a particular stereotype of individuals living in Appalachia, the Southern United States, the Ozarks, and later the Rocky Mountain States.” According to that source, the modern connotation also refers to an unwillingness to fully assimilate into the dominant culture. In my experience with those defined by the mainstream as “rednecks” (and I’ve met, known, and befriended hundreds of them from my years hunting, fishing, riding, and shooting), this is the true defining characteristic of “redneckism.” 

By and large, these people don’t watch Letterman or The Daily Show. They don’t drive hybrid cars, don’t frequent Starbucks or sushi joints, don’t adhere to fashion trends, don’t follow popular culture, and only rarely follow politics or even vote, tending instead to view all politicians as the same thing: liars. Basically, “rednecks” are refugees from the mainstream, folks who seek woods, mountains, fields, pastures, bars, barns, their homes and families, or the open road as a refuge from a popular culture that makes little sense to them — and which to their kind seems downright hostile (more on this in a minute).

The man who fixed my bike was a “redneck” — and clearly a decent person, the kind anyone would be happy to know, especially in their hour of need. His kindness was no isolated incident, either. As evidence, I offer another quick anecdote…

“Rednecks,” 15 — Educated Folk of Wealth, Taste, and Good Breeding, 0  

Throughout my life, I’ve had an embarrassing tendency to run out of gas in my various cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Any longtime friend of mine will confirm this. Once, I even ran two consecutive tanks of gas completely dry in the same vehicle. You’d figure I would have learned after that first tank, huh? Nope, I drained it and had to hitch to the nearest gas station. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve done this at least 20 times — the last time less than two years ago. In all but a handful of these incidents (five at most), I had to rely on strangers for help. 

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is this: It’s always the good ol’ boy in a beat-up pickup or a rumbling primer-gray ’71 Nova who stops to help me. Once, such a good Samaritan even hoisted my motorcycle up into his van and drove it and me to a gas station! It’s never the BMW-driving yuppie, the soccer mom behind the wheel of the minivan, or even the cop who stops to help… 

Now, I know that this isn’t exactly a scientific study of what types of people are more or less likely to offer assistance to folks in need — but I’ll bet anything that because of my particular affliction about not watching my fuel, I’ve had more incidents over the years that left me stranded on the roadside than just about anyone else reading this. This lends me at least some kind of educated perspective on the matter. 

And lest you think I’ve been running out of gas way out in the boonies where only the country boys roam, know this: The vast majority of places I’ve coasted to a stop on fumes have been in suburban or relatively affluent semi-rural neighborhoods within 10 miles or so of Baltimore. In these areas, most passersby weren’t “rednecks,” but the landed gentry of typical American horse country. In most cases, I watched Volvo after Benz after Cadillac roll on by — while I waited until the rare good ol’ boy roamed through on his way home from his job in the city. Like as not, he’d stop for me. 

To me, the results of this informal 20-year study-of-necessity in my own life have been very enlightening. That’s because to watch the mainstream media or talk to anyone of the educated urbanite mold, you’d never know that “rednecks” were anything other than boorish, toothless, inbred, spouse-abusing, immoral, tobacco-chewing, alcoholic criminals…

The Mainstream’s Red(Neck) Herring for a Silent “Minority”

Right now, the most popular movie in America is a flick called Talladega Nights. It stars Will Ferrell as a champion NASCAR driver trying to recover from a crisis of confidence after a crash — and whose winning mantle is assumed by a gay driver from France. It’s an absurd film that’s flatly unfunny (I had high hopes for it, too, after Ferrell’s greatness in Elf and Anchorman), and simultaneously insults and emasculates not only the nation’s 75 million NASCAR fans, but the whole of rural working-class America.

The “rednecks,” in other words.

Talladega Nights is just the latest in a long line of unflattering portrayals of rural Americans in film or on TV over the last 25 years or so – basically, ever since The Waltons went off the air in 1981. Seriously, can you think of any movie or TV show you’ve seen in theaters or on the Big Four TV networks that casts anyone who’d stereotypically be called a “redneck” in anything like a flattering light in the last two decades or so? 

The only thing I can think of that came close might have been CBS’s Walker, Texas Ranger series in the 1990s. Some might say The Dukes of Hazzard was a show that cast “rednecks” in a favorable light, but I’d argue that the program was all about capitalizing on the prevailing pop culture in the wake of the disco era — a time when Urban Cowboy (itself a none-too-flattering portrayal of rural America) supplanted Saturday Night Fever, and all things country were the height of American fashion. 

Shows likes Dukes, Dallas, and movies like Travolta’s Cowboy showed little of the hardworking, earnest, thrifty, God-fearing, buy-American backbone of society that working-class whites were at that time, instead showing only the rough edges. I mean, did you ever see any of those characters going to work? The Duke boys were bootleggers, for Pete’s sake, and those Ewing misfits were so corrupt they made the Kennedy clan look wholesome (speaking of bootleggers).

The onslaught began long before the death knell of the disco era, however. Remember who the villains were in 1969’s Easy Rider? Shotgun-wielding “rednecks.” The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Chainsaw-wielding “rednecks.” 

Ironically, one of the truest and fairest depictions of these people I can recall in a movie is in the film adaptation of James Dickey’s Deliverance. The “rednecks” in that film run the gamut from villainous sodomite hillbillies to suspicious, yet letter-of-the-law cops to honest folk who deliver the fated foursome’s car as promised to kindhearted souls who take them in at a bountiful dinner table after their ordeal. In Deliverance, Burt Reynolds’ Lewis Medlock is himself strikingly close to the prototypical modern-day “redneck” — a man who lives by his own rules, drives a truck, hunts and fishes, has basic woods and survival sense, and rejects such things as insurance and the petty luxuries his comrades yearn for.  

Elton John’s No. 1 hit song from 1972 Honky Cat is all about a young man’s flight from his God-fearing family’s farm to the bright lights of the big city — and how this change formed the catalyst of a rich and full life for the man.

An especially egregious example of “redneck” bashing is the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny, which takes place in the Deep South. There isn’t a single local character in that film or depiction of rural Southern life that isn’t lopsidedly cornpone or downright malicious. And if you really want an eye-opening rant against “rednecks,” watch or listen to Bill Maher or Jon Stewart. They’re merciless in their portrayal of people who have come to be known to them as “rednecks.”

Here’s my point in bringing all this up: In my opinion, the overall hostile tenor of the U.S. mainstream — politically, culturally, and in the media — toward what they’ve labeled as “rednecks” is blurring the distinction between a tiny, disenfranchised sliver of American citizenship of truly unenviable means and spotty reputation (what’s sometimes called “white trash,” an offensive term in its own right that implies that the word “trash” would typically be reserved for nonwhites) and a hugely productive and downright vital segment of American society: blue-collar rural whites.

It’s also my opinion that there’s a concentrated effort on the part of the mainstream to keep these people at arm’s length and feeling disenfranchised. If they were embraced in the manner that any other minority (they’re only barely one of these) is in this country, these salt-of-the-earth folks would soon realize their profound power to shape both American culture and our nation’s policies. The constant barrage of ridicule and denigration is a red herring to keep them from uniting into the single most powerful lobby in the U.S.

In the next installment of this essay, I’ll show you not just how many of these “rednecks” there are, but just how vital they are to both the day-in-and-day-out American economy and the fast-declining concept of the “American identity.” 

I’ll also show you what kind of a pickle our nation would be in from a defense standpoint without them… 

Seeing red — and glad of it,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
August 22, 2006